20 Years of Environmental Films

After 20 years, Flo Stone still sounds like a kid at a party, albeit a serious kid at a serious party.

Stone, a Georgetown resident, is president and founder of the Environmental Film Festival of Washington, which will be holding its 20th anniversary festival – March 13 through March 25 – with screenings of 180 documentary films at 65 venues throughout the Washington, D.C. area.

“It’s amazing to me, it really is,” Stone said. “We started out so small, and we had no idea we’d still be doing by this time. And look at all the other festivals out there, there’s been an explosion.”

Stone came to Washington and Georgetown from a job at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, working in programming. In New York, she had organized a Margaret Mead festival on the legendary anthropologist. And then, while working at the environmental group, Earthwatch, located in Georgetown, she had the idea for a film festival on the environment.

“We had 1,200 people who came,” she said. “We worked with the Smithsonian and the National Geographic Society. Now look at us.”

Since then, the festival has grown — and the whole environmental film festival movement — along with young and old people’s increased interest in all things ecological.

“The idea at the time was to have documentaries, shorts, even fiction films, that would focus on the environment, on nature, on our resources,” Stone said. “It wasn’t necessarily a political thing — nature and the natural world have always been the concern of our film-makers, not just issues and agendas.”

We live in a world where resources appear to be dwindling, where climate change and global warming are hot and cool topics and the subject of much debate. So, films about the environment inevitably have a “cause” glow about them. But the expansion of the festival, and the interests of the filmmakers indicate that it’s beyond politics, that people (some 30,000 last year) come to movies they care about and are invested in.

It places Stone, who talks with excitement and passion about this year’s festival, in the position of founder and pioneer of a kind of cinematic movement. The D.C. festival has been a model for a movement that has sprouted similar festivals all over the country. These films may not be box-office champs, but their contents and effects linger. They stay in people’s consciousness, they float about your dreams (and nightmares), they get talked about, they generate passions. And they’re pretty good movies to boot.

“I suppose that does make me a pioneer,” she said. “But what I’m proud of is the impact of the festival, the fact that it has lasted and will go on.”

You want to see how big the festival has become? Check out these numbers for this year’s festival: 180 documentary, narrative, animated, archival, experimental and children’s films from 42 countries. Ninety-three of the films are world premieres. This is a body-contact festival: 75 filmmakers and 115 special guests will attend for discussions, panels and workshops.

Chief among them is Ken Burns, the prolific and expansive director, who’s probably the most high-profile maker of documentaries in the world, with his hugely successful PBS television series on everything from baseball to the Civil War, our national parks, Mark Twain, jazz, World War II and Prohibition. He’ll be here to preview clips of his new film, “The Dust Bowl.” In addition, Academy-Award nominated filmmaker Lucy Walker will be here for a retrospective of her films, including her newest, “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom.”

Films are always selected to fulfill the festival mission of providing fresh perspectives on environmental issues facing our planet. This year, the key relationship between health and the environment will be a special festival theme.

A film bound to be a visual delight is the U.S. premiere of “La Cle des Champs” (“The Field of Enchantment”), by the directors of the award-winning “Microcosmos,” which will highlight the wonders of nature through close-up photography.

Another promising treat could be filmmaker Perry Miller Adato’s film, “Paris: The Luminous Years”—shades of “The Artist” and “Hugo”?

Lest this all sounds a little light, consider the topics being handled by festival entries and films: the meaning of the organic food label, the disastrous introduction of cane toads into Australia, the Himalayan mountain kingdom of Bhutan, the future of the electric car, the story of eco-pirate Paul Watson, the dangers of nuclear power, climate change and how rising sea levels have threatened the survival of low-lying Pacific Islands. Further topics include the health and economic effects of the BP oil spill, the environmental impact of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, the fight over wind farming, and creating healthy habitats for humans.

Films will be shown at 65 venues in the D.C. area, including museums, cultural institutions, libraries and embassies, as well as the AFI Theater in Silver Spring and the National Zoo. Most screenings, as since the festival’s beginning, are free. You can probably thank Flo Stone for that, too.

For a complete list of events, screenings and times, visit www.DCEnvironmentalFilmFest.org.

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